The O’Toole Ladder Ranch

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:10/26/2010 Updated:07/01/2016

“In my case, I never looked back.  I never considered anything else.  I had an older brother who died at a young age, and a sister who moved to Brazil.  I was the baby; I just didn’t leave.”  Those are the words of Sharon O’Toole, a fourth generation rancher who, with her husband Pat, explains her life choice to run the Ladder Ranch on the Colorado/Wyoming line.  

“I tell my kids, you have to really want this because it’s too hard otherwise.”  Nevertheless, two out of three of Sharon’s children have also opted for ranch life. 

In 1881, Sharon’s great grandfather purchased a homestead remittance near what is now the Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming.  Located 55 miles northwest of Steamboat Springs, their operation now spans 12,000 acres of private land in Wyoming and Colorado as well as about one-half million acres of public rangeland.

I met Sharon in 2008, and she has been serving on our Resources First Foundation advisory board ever since.  Pat O’Toole also runs the ranch and is president of the Family Farm Alliance with a mission of defending irrigated agriculture.

However, in explaining the greatest challenges they face in modern ranching, Sharon doesn’t point to water.  She says, “Whenever you go to any kind of agricultural gathering, the topic that rises to the surface is succession and planning issues.  In any small business, but especially agriculture, it’s hard to make the inter-generational transfer.”  

Sharon and Pat have three children.  Bridget is her “urban daughter” - “we don’t know what happened to her,” she jokes.  Another daughter and son, Meghan and Eamon, each with their own kids (the sixth generation) now help to run the ranch.  The spouses who followed her kids back home to the Ladder Ranch are also an indispensable part of modern ranch life.  Sharon says, “If you’re going to be in ag, you need a spouse with a good job for the insurance!”

“We’re lucky to have two kids who are interested,” she continues.  “Ranchers seem to have too many people who want to come home or nobody.  In our case, we have to make a living for everybody, so we’re adding other enterprises to the ranch:  what we call ‘ranch recreation’ and a landscape reclamation business.”  

Ranch Recreation

Meghan - Pat and Sharon’s oldest daughter - has taken on responsibility for managing the ranch recreation.  When big gruff guys call to book hunts, Sharon hands them over to her petite 5-foot, 105- pound daughter.  

Although they offer several cabins and a cookhouse that serves three squares a day, it is decidedly not a dude ranch.  A popular activity for many people is simply to ride along with the ranch crew, perhaps checking on cattle or visiting a high-country sheep camp.  Pat says, “City people just can’t believe how beautiful it is and really enjoy it.”  

By offering a combination of outdoor pursuits, from hunting to fly fishing to horseback riding, their operation grows every year.  They have been approved as an Audubon Important Bird Area, which will draw more birders.

Mining Reclamation Using Sheep

Eamon, the O’Toole’s only son, has taken on management of their newest enterprise, a landscape reclamation business.  Living as they do in the heart of oil field country, much of the landscape has been disturbed by energy production operations, which have had very little success with reclamation.  

The O’Tooles have developed a process to reclaim the land using sheep.  Eamon’s operation broadcasts a BLM-approved seed mix, and the sheep provide hoof action and manure to plant it.  They corral the sheep using electric fencing and can usually cover 3/4 to one acre per day.  They are meeting with much greater success than previous reclamation efforts, but Sharon notes that working with BLM and the energy companies entails “a whole lot of hoops to jump through.”  

Easements for Financial Security

The O’Tooles are executing conservation easements to protect about 20% of their property, close to 3000 acres.  They are ag-friendly easements that mostly forbid subdivision, feedlots, and high impact recreation such as 4-wheelers.  

Sharon says, “Everybody in the family was on board - often that’s not the case - but everyone agreed.”  Pat O’Toole adds, “We have a pretty piece of country, and it also gives us some flexibility financially and meets our expectations of where we think ranching is going.”

In addition to her extensive duties on the ranch, Sharon somehow finds time to be a writer and a poet.  Her eloquent and entertaining blog hosted by the Western Folklife Center captures ranch life in words, pictures, and poetry.  “The way I think about the blog, how neat would it be if my grandmother had done something like that?” she says.  It can also be accessed through their Ladder Ranch website,

Most ranchers feel their connection to the land deeply but are at a loss for words to describe it.  Sharon explains her feelings by quoting a line from the book, The Horse Whisperer

“This isn’t what I do, this is who I am.”


re: The O’Toole Ladder Ranch
By: Jim on: 10/31/2010

Congratulations to the grandparents of the newest O'Toole, Patrick McCoy. Jim

re: The O’Toole Ladder Ranch
By: Christina B. Salama on: 10/31/2010

Ladder Ranch is certainly one of the 1000 places you have to visit before you die!!! I hope we'll be able to do it one day. Christina and Mayer from Brazil.

re: The O’Toole Ladder Ranch
By: Gary Hakala on: 10/28/2010

I first went to work on this ranch over 50 years ago. I spent five wonderful, but hard summers on this special place and there hasn't been a day of my life since that I haven't missed it. Gary Hakala aka "Cookie"